Do I look like I saw a ghost? A while back, Attorney General John Ashcroft received unprecedented police powers over ordinary citizens. Some of us complained. “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty,” he responded, “my message is this: your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.” You either give up your freedoms willingly, or the terrorists will take them by force. As it turned out, Ashcroft scarcely needed his new powers. Americans have taken to policing each other.
Each day, citizens are apprehended for taking snapshots or speaking their political views or wearing a tee shirt or acting, in that broadest of accusations, suspicious. Occasionally someone gets turned in for exposing himself near a public library, but that guy is on his own. It’s the targets of the safety-first, freedom-last brigade I’m concerned about, and for good reason: I’m one of them.
I used to be one of the world’s top theme park designers, did you know that? No, you didn’t. I’ve worked on parks, resorts, urban centers, museums, attractions, and zoos and aquaria on every continent in dozens of countries. I helped rebuild Berlin after the wall fell. I was lead designer of the largest fully themed attraction on Earth, the African safari at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Not only that, I’ve seen Mickey Mouse without his head on. Need more? Of course not, I insisted on telling you this much. The point is when I go to a theme park as a customer, it’s a busman’s holiday.
I am called upon in the summer season to help chaperone field trips for a summer camp. This time the junket involved a well-known water park, one of those joints full of intestinal high-speed slides, fake beaches, funnel cakes, and wasps. Clad in swim trunks and prescription sunglasses, I ventured into the park with five energetic charges under my waterwing. The game began: the kids would scatter and get lost, then I would go around trying to locate them to make sure they were still alive and apply sunscreen if they were beginning to resemble prosciutto. Eventually I corralled the wayward scions of Neptune at one end of the park where I could more or less track their movements atop a shady bridge, overlooking a concrete serpentine full of inflatable tubes resembling immense hemorrhoid cushions.
For the better part of an hour I languished there. At some point, a lifeguard appeared at my side. To beguile a few minutes, I sketched my background and asked him a few professional questions about the river attraction: how many tubes did they put out every day, how many people did it hold, and so forth. He muttered evasively and scuttled away. Then I realized I’d lost track of four out of my five kids. Lone child in tow, I sallied forth, looking for floaters.
Which is when a uniformed police officer approached me, hand on gun, and asked if I was the individual who had been asking suspicious questions on the bridge. My pulses raced. There were at least ten lifeguards and three more cops hovering around in case I got crazy and detonated my Red Sox cap. In half a trice, I grasped the stakes: my next answer was the difference between a typical day at the park and a sojourn in the pokey, my youth group abandoned to the whims of fate. So rather than stand on principle, which I sorely wished to do, I recounted my questions to the lifeguard, my professional qualifications, and my exact purpose in standing on the bridge. The kid backed me up, bless him. Once the cross-examination established I was not much of a security risk, The policeman revealed that park employees had been following me around for some time, and in fact the lifeguard I’d spoken to was trying to get a close look to see if I was “up to something”. I learned that the entire park staff and the local police went on red alert because I asked questions, but didn’t swim. I also learned there is a fine, poorly marked line between vigilance and delusion.
As soon as the long army of the law was satisfied I was just some guy, I gathered up my wee ‘uns, crossed to the video arcade by the entrance to the park, and fed them quarters until it was time to join the squalling horde on the chartered bus. The entire episode required a trifling fifteen minutes to reach its conclusion, but in that time I was an ant’s whisker away from arrest. Here’s the moral of the story: we’re giving up our freedoms faster than the government can take them away. That wasn’t a ghost I saw. It was a phantom of lost liberty.
BEN TRIPP is a screenwriter and cartoonist, who lives in a large human settlement 100 miles south of Bakersfield, which we cannot name for security reasons. Ben also has a lot of outrageously priced crap for sale here. A collection of Tripp’s essays, Square in the Nuts, will be published in August. If his writing starts to grate on your nerves, buy some and maybe he’ll flee to Mexico. If all else fails, he can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org